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Commandos at MacDill Gear Up for the Annual Warrior Games

Retired Staff Sgt. Nicholas Dadgostar serves the ball during the Warrior Care Month Sitting Volleyball Tournament championship game at the Pentagon in Washington, D.C., Nov. 19, 2015. (U.S. Air Force photo/Senior Airman Hailey Haux)
Retired Staff Sgt. Nicholas Dadgostar serves the ball during the Warrior Care Month Sitting Volleyball Tournament championship game at the Pentagon in Washington, D.C., Nov. 19, 2015. (U.S. Air Force photo/Senior Airman Hailey Haux)

TAMPA — Sitting on the floor of the MacDill Air Force Base gym, Army Sgt. Lauren Montoya swats a red, white and green volleyball across the net, where another group of men and women are sitting on the floor waiting to swat it back.

All the while, her teammates, opponents and the audience in the stands whoop it up.

Montoya is on the floor because she is one of about four dozen active-duty service members and veterans taking part in a round-robin sitting volleyball tourney. The adaptive sport event, set up so that even those missing limbs can participate, is a tuneup for the Defense Department's 2016 DoD/Warrior Care Policy Military Adaptive Sports Program Warrior Games.

The games, which run June 15-21 at West Point, New York, give wounded, ill and injured service members and veterans a chance to compete against each other in seven different adaptive sports.

The Warrior Games began in 2010. They are the pinnacle of a Defense Department program supporting the physical and emotional well-being of participants and contributing to a successful recovery, whether they are transitioning back to active duty or to civilian life.

Teams of wounded, ill and injured, representing the Army, Marine Corps, Navy/Coast Guard, Air Force and U.S. Special Operations Command, compete for gold in archery, track and field, cycling, sitting volleyball, shooting, wheelchair basketball and swimming.

Because Socom is relatively small, the weeklong event that kicked off Feb. 28 — USSOCOM Military's Adaptive Sports Program Warrior Games Selection and All Sports Camp — was more of a team-building exercise than a tryout. Unlike the services, which have a far larger pool to chose from, Socom's small size means there are no cuts.

Two years ago, while in Afghanistan, Montoya, 24, was in an armored vehicle in Kandahar province, Afghanistan, when it hit an improvised explosive device. She suffered injuries to her left leg that eventually led to a below-the-knee amputation.

Montoya was urged to compete in the Warrior Games by the U.S. Special Operations Command Care Coalition, an advocacy program designed to increase troops' quality of life and mission-readiness, and transition back to civilian life.

"I'm here to compete," Montoya said in between 10-minute matches among six teams, including the University of South Florida Women's Volleyball Team and one made up of senior commanders like Army Brig. Gen. Robert Walters, who runs the Socom intelligence directorate. "The chance to perform with all these high-level athletes is really awesome."

Walters was one of several top Socom leaders attending the event. Others were Army Maj. Gen. Christopher K. Haas, Air Force Maj. Gen. Stephen Clark, Australian Brigadier Paul Kenny and Socom Command Sgt. Maj. William "Bill" Thetford.

Like a number of the other competitors, Montoya will also take part in the Invictus Games, being held this year from May 8-12 at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex in Orlando. Like the Warrior Games, the civilian-run Invictus Games were created to use the power of sport to inspire recovery, support rehabilitation and generate a wider understanding and respect for wounded, injured and sick service members.

For Montoya and the others, the weeklong gathering at MacDill is a chance to push limits, soak up camaraderie and maintain a sense of task and purpose.

"This is the opposite of 'Fight Club,' " said Josh Lindstrom, a medically retired Army sergeant first class. "The guys aren't heading for the bottom, they are climbing up."

Lindstrom, 37, was a Green Beret with the 10th Special Forces Group. He recently left the Army after 15 years and several injuries, including traumatic brain injury and post traumatic stress disorder. He was badly hurt in Logar province Afghanistan in 2012 when his armored vehicle hit an IED.

For him, the Warrior Games are a chance to reconnect with others who have been through what he's been through, and continue the mission to get better.

"This is a chance to do what it takes to heal," Lindstrom said.

Air Force Master Sgt. Israel Del Toro, 40, has taken part in all six Warrior Games, either competing or as a coach.

Del Toro was badly burned in Afghanistan in 2005 when his vehicle was hit by an IED. Del Toro, a tactical air control party member who helped maintain communications between ground forces and air assets, said that his vehicle was targeted because the enemy knew the value of taking out those who make that communications link.

Now taking part in paralympics events with the Air Force, Del Toro said the Warrior Games "helps keep us going.

"We have all been athletes," he said. "And this is a way to continue. The games are really motivating and keep our minds occupied. They give you something to work towards."

In between sitting down and scooting across the gym floor, Walters, the brigadier general who runs Socom's intelligence directorate, said, "It is an honor to watch these wounded warriors. It helps with the recovery process to go out and be able to do something like this."

Army Col. Cary Harbaugh, whose duties include caring for the participants, said the Warrior Games are about more than competition.

"Just listen to the noise in here," said Harbaugh, director of Socom's Care Coalition. "These people are competing but they are also rooting for each other. There are people who have lost limbs, been burned, have traumatic brain injury and PTSD. They know what it is like. This really helps the healing process."

For the women of USF, the event was eye-opening.

"This has been an awesome experience," said Amy Van Sant, 21, who will be a senior in the fall studying mass communications.

Van Sant, who has participated in the event in the past, said there is a great spirit of camaraderie and welcomes the chance to see familiar faces.

As a competitive athlete, she finds it a learning experience to try to win while sitting down.

"Having to keep your cheeks on the ground evens things out. We are used to being able to run around and use all our limbs. This is really challenging."

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